FAIRBANKS -- Once one of the state's best-kept king salmon fishing secrets, the Gulkana River has been attracting the attention of more and more anglers over the past decade as other roadside fisheries have become crowded.
As a result, the river is also beginning to draw more and more interest from the agencies that manage it.
Both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management are taking a more active role in overseeing use on the river, located about 250 miles south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway.
State fisheries biologists have been tagging and implanting radio transmitters into the stomachs of king salmon in the Copper River for the past three years in an attempt to figure out where the fish are spawning and which rivers, such as the Gulkana, are the most crucial to the long-term health of the Copper River's chinook run.
Now, the state, in conjunction with the BLM, is planning to construct a fish-counting tower on the Gulkana River this summer to try to get a better handle on how many king salmon return to spawn in the river.
''You're looking at one of the two largest king salmon fisheries in the Interior,'' said Tom Taube, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Glennallen. ''The more tools you have, the better off you are in finding out how many fish are in there.''
The BLM, meanwhile, is resuscitating a four-year-old process aimed at composing a new plan to manage use on the portion of river designated as wild and scenic. The last management plan was written in 1983.
''We hope to come up with an environmental analysis and have a draft management plan by the end of February to go out for public comment,'' said Ramone Baccus-McCoy, field manager for the BLM office in Glennallen.
Three years ago, the BLM hired a Colorado planning firm to conduct a three-year study of use on the river but the study was never completed because the contract was terminated by the BLM after two years. Since then, the BLM has continued to monitor use on the wild and scenic portion of the river from Paxson Lake to Sourdough Campground. The BLM is using information gathered in public meetings in 1998 and 1999, as well as results from a 1999 mail-out survey, to compose a new management plan.
The BLM also recently hired an environmental coordinator and planner to work specifically on the Gulkana River plan. McCoy said the BLM is studying such issues as conflicts between different user groups and problems with human waste at popular camping spots on the river.
The BLM is working with both the state and Ahtna Native Corp., which owns land on some of the most accessible fishing spots on the river.
''We're assuming we'll come to some kind of mutual understanding for cooperative management of the river,'' said McCoy.
One thing the BLM is considering is whether or not to establish a permit system for the wild and scenic portion of the river from Paxson Lake to the Sourdough Campground.
''It's not a tool to keep people off the river but for us to get a better idea of what's going on,'' said BLM outdoor recreational planner K.J. Mushovic. ''We're not staffed enough to have people popping into camps everywhere.''
The idea of a permit system evolved from user surveys in which the BLM discovered very few users sign in at check stations located at popular put-ins and takeouts along the river. The BLM uses those registration numbers to gauge use on the river.
''We always thought not many people signed in, but nobody signed in,'' said Mushovic.
A permit system would give the BLM a chance to talk to people before they go on the river, as well as provide them maps and other information about the river, McCoy said.
''It would give us a chance to interact with our users,'' she said. ''The way things are right now it doesn't seem like that's happening.''
A three-year moratorium that the BLM instituted on new guiding operations on the river in 1998 expired in October and Mushovic said the BLM will be reviewing applications for new guides on the river in the next few months, though she isn't sure how many will apply or be allowed on the river.
There were nine guiding operations permitted to operate on the river last year, Mushovic said.
During the moratorium, Mushovic compiled a list of people who inquired about guiding on the river and there are more than 30 names on it.
She recently sent each person a letter notifying them the moratorium had expired and the application period for new guides was open. The deadline to apply is Feb. 1.
''That will give us a more accurate idea of how much interest there really is for commercial access on that river,'' Mushovic said.
While fishing guide Mike Kramer is happy to see Fish and Game trying to collect more information about king salmon in the Gulkana River, the fact that the BLM is getting its hand deeper into the pot makes him nervous.
''I'm all in favor of management but I'd rather have Fish and Game managing the fishing aspects of river than BLM,'' said Kramer, who has been guiding on the river for the past 15 years. ''I worry that BLM will be overly restrictive and make decisions not on science but on perceived user conflicts.''
Kramer pointed out that the BLM has authority to manage only those lands above the high-water mark in the river.
''Their only authority on that river is the access point at Paxson Lake and the take out at Sourdough (campground),'' Kramer said. ''Other than that, BLM has no legal jurisdiction to manage the river.''
Kramer is worried that a Native group such as Ahtna will attempt to institute some kind of subsistence fishery on the Gulkana River or that the BLM will establish a preference for rural fishermen.
''I'm pessimistic with BLM's expanded role in managing the Gulkana River,'' said Kramer. ''It's going to lead to further federal restrictions on both recreational and commercial activities.''
The number of fishermen and guides on the river have increased dramatically in the last 15 years. In 1986, there was only one guide on the river. Last summer, there were nine guides with permits to operate on the river. The number of king salmon being caught in the Gulkana has also doubled in the last decade, from about 2,000 to 4,000 fish a year.
The fish-counting tower to be installed this summer by Fish and Game will supplement the aerial surveys that have been used to estimate the number of fish spawning in the river.
Aerial counts are not as accurate as weir or tower counts because they are more of an estimate than an actual count. In 1996, for example, Fish and Game counted more than 11,000 king salmon through a weir that was set up on the river while aerial surveys estimated the number to be about 2,000.
''There's always a discrepancy between aerial counts and tower or weir counts,'' said Taube. ''So much depends on flying conditions with aerial surveys. If it's not clear blue sky and there's clouds and it's overcast, it's like night and day.
''On the Gulkana you'd never see all the kings from the air,'' added Taube, who conducts the aerial surveys each summer. ''Certain holes are so deep you can't see them. If they're stacked vertically you're going to miss some.''
Unlike a weir, which is basically an underwater fence that funnels fish into one passage point so they can be counted, a fish tower consists of white tarpaulin panels spread across the river bottom that highlight the fish as they swim by, allowing a counter in a tower on the riverbank to see them.
A fish-counting tower is a cheaper alternative than a weir, said Mac Minard, regional management supervisor for the Division of Sport Fish in Fairbanks.
The ultimate goal is to establish a ''biological escapement goal'' for the Gulkana River, said Minard. The BEG is the minimum number of spawning fish needed to sustain the run while at the same time meeting the harvest demands of different users.
Having a set number for a biological escapement goal allows biologists to take management actions to ensure that enough fish reach the spawning grounds.
Currently, Fish and Game uses an aerial estimate of 1,200 kings as an unofficial BEG for the river, but the first in a series of aerial surveys aren't conducted until the sport fishing season is almost over.
Biologists are planning to place the tower on the main stem of the Gulkana River about a mile and half above the confluence of the West Fork, which puts it within the Gulkana National Wild River corridor managed by the BLM.
It will cost about $120,000 a year to set up and staff the tower with a three-person crew.
The BLM is footing the bill for the first five years of the project, Taube said. After that, the state would likely fund it, he said.
The longer the tower is set up, the more effective it will be as a management tool, Taube said. Biologists need several years of data to be able to estimate the average the size of the Gulkana's king run.
''It will be a minimum of five years before any information we get from the tower can be used for in-season management,'' said Taube. ''We have to have a historic record.''
The state would like to have a way to count king salmon in the Klutina River, too, but that's impossible because the Klutina is a glacial river and you can't see the fish.
''It's unfortunate we can't do anything on the Klutina,'' said Taube. ''Harvest has really jumped up the last few years on the Klutina so that it's right up there with the harvest on the Gulkana.
''Luckily the Gulkana River is a clearwater stream so we can collect this kind of data,'' Taube said.
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